Apr 5 2013 12:00pm

Fantasy, Reading, and Escapism

JRR Tolkien, on fairy storiesOn the subject of reading as escapism, Tolkien asked C.S. Lewis who was opposed to escape, and answered “Jailers.” Yet seventy-five years after the publication of Tolkien's “On Fairy Stories” where he relates this anecdote, people are still trying to make us feel guilty about our reading.

“What are your guilty reading pleasures?” “Why do you read escapist books?” “Is there any merit to that?” “Is there something wrong with you that you're reading for enjoyment instead of taking your literary vitamins?”

I love reading. If I say this, people generally look at me with approval. Reading is a culturally approved practice, it improves my mind and widens my cultural capital. But if I admit what I read — more fiction than non fiction, more genre books than classics, fantasy, science fiction, romance, military fiction, historical fiction, mysteries and YA — then I lose that approval and have to start justifying my choices. I also read a lot of Victorian fiction and biographies and random interesting non-fiction and some things published as literature... and I don't hold any of them as better than any of the others. To me they're all what I'm reading because I want to read it, because reading it is the most fun I can have in any given moment.

I don't feel defensive about what I choose to read. I don't feel proud of some pieces and ashamed of other pieces. It's all reading, and I do it all for fun. I don't do it to escape, I'm not in prison. I like my life. But when I was in prison, excuse me, boarding school, and when I was stuck in hospital (which is even more like prison except without time off for good behaviour) of course I wanted to escape and of course I was delighted that books were there for me to escape into. If your life sucks, escaping it makes a great deal of sense. If your life is bounded and restricted, seeing that more options exist helps, even if they're all theoretical and imaginary. Escaping doesn't mean avoiding reality, escaping means finding an escape route to a better place. Seeing those options can be the file to get through the bars. Anyone who thinks this is a bad thing is the enemy.

I have never made the career choice of being a dragon's princess. I have never started a revolution on the moon. I've never so much as stolen a magic ring or ordered an attack on Guadalcanal. I bet you haven't either. But we imaginatively know what it would be like because we've read about it and cared about the characters and thrown ourselves into the story. There are worlds I'd hate to live in, books that make me feel delighted that I'm not living in them, dystopias and books where awful things happened to the characters. I still enjoyed them, and I might still have escaped into them. I might have come back to my reality of boarding school and said, “Well, at least it's not Airstrip One!”

There's a way in which fiction is about understanding human nature. It's about more than that, of course, but that's a significant part of it. I feel that you can tell more interesting stories about human nature if you can contrast it with alien nature, or elf nature, or what human nature would be like if you had nine thousand identical clones, or if people could extend their lives by sucking life force from other people. There are more possibilities for stories in genre, more places for stories to go. More ways to escape, more things to think about, more fun.

In C.S. Lewis's The Silver Chair, a book I first read as a small child, some characters are in an underground kingdom where an evil enchantress attempts to persuade them that the sun and the worlds they came from aren't real, and only the underground world is real. One of them argues passionately that even if the sun isn't real, he'll believe in it because even an imaginary sun is better than a lamp.  Now this character, Puddleglum, is not only made up, but he's not even human, he's an imaginary creature, a marshwiggle. But remembering Puddleglum's declaration has helped me get through some hard moments all my life, has helped me believe in fiction even when it's not real, has given me an example of how you can stand up for what matters even when it might not be real. Lewis meant it for an allegory of religion, but I didn't know that when I was six years old and it isn't at all how I read it. People get their own things out of stories. If you give them books and turn them loose they'll escape, and grow up, and do all sorts of things.

Did I mention that I love reading?

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

lake sidey
1. lakesidey
Thanks. Now I have something articulate to point people to when then gave me weird looks for being proud of reading Fantasy and the like :) Rather than the incoherent defenses I usually come up with :P

2. a1ay
Not to mention that a lot of fiction - SF in particular - is anything but escapist.
"What's that book you're reading?"
"What's it about?"
"Oh, it's set in an oppressive society where the entire transport system depends on a resource mined from beneath an arid, hostile desert, whose supply is threatened by a band of religious fanatics armed with weapons of mass destruction."
"Oh, you mean it's escapism."
Benji Cat
3. benjicat
Great article! The first sentence is confusing though. Are there some words missing?
Colleen Palmer
4. arianrose
I find myself categorizing the books I read as "fluffy" or "crunchy." The fluffy books are the ones that entertain me, move me, or make me smile. The crunchy books are the ones that require all neurons firing in perfect order. Generally they're nonfiction, but not always.

I refuse to raise one category over another. I may get brownie points for digging into Pinker's new treatise, but that doesn't make my joy of rereading Lackey or Eddings any less.

And that speech by Puddleglum... beautiful, and now I need to go reread The Silver Chair.
Peter Stone
5. Peter1742
In our public library, at least, Random Acts of Senseless Violence is shelved with mainstream fiction and not science fiction. If it was published that way in the U.S., it may explain why it was not noticed by the genre community.
james Pope
6. jim162065
Sometimes i think people take reading for granted. Oh, your reading to escape. They never ponder how long it took you to learn to read. they just think reading scfi or fansty books. They need the better actor to come talk to them to tell them what their missing. Like Waynes World 2 with Charlton Heston saying the lines that last actor said but saying them so much better.
William Carter
7. wcarter
To quote the great David Farland: "I can't help notice that most of the ivory tower academia types that blast "genre" fiction have never actually read it and are silently resentful that their books about an aging professor who's contemplating maybe having an affair never actually get picked up by a major publishing house let alone read."
8. CJBrightley
I think it's really more "adventuring" than "escaping." We can experience so much in books that isn't necessarily realistic or desirable in real life, and we can fit those experiences around our real lives in an enriching way, rather than competing with or replacing real life.
Steven Halter
9. stevenhalter
Another good reading post, Jo. CJBrightley@8--Yes, that's it and as Jo alluded, through reading I can go on all of the adventures I want--millennia chock full of them. Hard to do that no matter how fun your actual life may be.
10. Rush-That-Speaks
Yes, that. And as Le Guin said, people are so afraid of dragons. So afraid of the imagination in general-- the very word 'escapist' implies that after reading, as you read, you're free, you're in the act of freeing yourself. When did that become a bad thing?

'But you have to face up to--' my mother said, after informing me she would be inspecting all my library books to make sure I didn't bring home any fantasy or science fiction for the next month. Face up to what? It boiled down to 'that life is dull and boring and horrible and denying that is somehow untrue', and this turned out to be, quite simply, incorrect.

Now it is true that people can use books as an excuse not to have a life. I have seen that happen. It is possible to live in books instead of, not as well as. But it is amazingly more rare in my experience than those who live in books as well as, and I spend a lot of time among the people everybody says live in books instead of. If it's so rare among those people, I cannot think it is more common elsewhere. I also don't think it's an incurable thing, when it does happen, or enough of a social ill to warrant all the worrying.

Still, after all this time, though, so many afraid of dragons. There's the social ill that I, personally, worry about; and, in my experience, far less curable.
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
Rush-That-Speaks: Yes, it can happen, but worrying about it is worrying about the wrong scale of thing.

And your mother -- it's not just being wrong about books, it's being wrong about life.
12. RobinM
My relatives and friends don't usually make fun of what I'm reading because they like the same kind of books or just accept that I like something they don't with only minor snark. They make more fun of when I'm doing it. I manage to bring a book everywhere I go, so I'll start reading quietly as they sit around talking with each other. I should participate and join in the discussion. I just say I'm sitting here with the rest of you that as socialble as I want to get. If my brother really wants me to react or say something he swipes my book and holds it over his head.
Christopher Johnstone
13. CPJ
Jo, I always read your articles and I always find they illuminate some dark corner of the human condition.

Disapproaval of escapism is a strange powerful thing. There is a decission a person can make to crush out all their imagination and 'childishness', and grimly trudge against life's storm. There is a sort of pleasure in that, I think. I know I've felt it myself from time to time: a sort of grey joy in self-sacrifice and saying things like 'life wasn't meant to be easy' or 'if a job is fun, no-one is going to pay you to do it'. People can become indulgent with seriouesness, just as they can become indulgent with joy.

I think the anger (and it often is anger) comes from a feeling that a person's own life choices are being subtly disapproved of. That somehow, the evidence that life doesn't necessarily have to be a struggle all the time is a criticism, and a tacit refuting of a life choice.

I don't quite know where I'm going with this except to say that I enjoyed the article and agree.

Bill Capossere
14. Billcap
My only guilty reading pleasure is all the reading I do for pleasure when I should be reading/grading papers. Though the guilt doesn't stop me from doing it all the time. Nor does it last very long. Nor am I sure whether I feel guilty about the reading or guilty about not feeling guilty. Oh man, now I'm looking at a stack of papers and starting to feel guilty about writing here about how I feel guilty . . .
15. JoanneMacg
A great post! I get so annoyed when great stories are described as "just entertainment" or "mere escapism". As a writer, I can think of no greater goal, or more profoundly magical skill than to dissociate a person from the present and immerse them in a different reality. It rocks!
17. CarlosSkullsplitter
Hm. Would this essay seem as heartfelt if one made some simple search-and-replace changes in subject matter from books to television?

Reading is exactly as interesting as what you do with it. If you're using it passively, like a drug, like those people who love their "comfort reading", why, you might as well be one of those supposedly impossible to relate to people in Neuromancer. If you're using it to sort people you want to have conversations with, you omit people who have a completely different set of tastes--including non-readers, the majority of people--who are just as potentially interesting, or more so. It's the social hierarchy of the self-important record store clerk, back when there were record store clerks.

By all means, read, and read widely. But remember that it's a complement to life, not a substitute.
18. Amaryllis
@Billcap: yes, that's the kind of "guilty pleasure" in reading to which I'm all too susceptible myself.

I've sometimes used to the phrase for books that I know aren't well written, or include themes and implications that I find problematic-- but I like the book anyway. But that has nothing to do with genre or subject matter, or whether I'm "escaping" from anything, or wasting my time when I should be improving my mind with something "serious."

In one of Gaiman's "Sandman" books, a character is shown reading a book called "When Real Things Happen To Imaginary People." That's oen definition of good fiction, right there. The "real things" may or may not be the kind of thing that I'm likely to experience in my own life, or that it's possible for anyone to experience, but they have their own kind of truth nonetheless. (And a reader can tell the difference when they don't.) If fiction gives us a variety of different ways to experience those truths, and cope with them or escape from them or celebrate them as the case may be, then surely it's all good.

@CarlosSkullsplitter: I'm not sure it's possible to be entirely passive when reading anything, even an old familiar "comfort book." Anyway, see above re escapism and jailers.

The whole conversation is about NOT sorting stories, or the people who like them, by some arbitrary scale of worthiness.
Nicole Lowery
19. hestia

Hmm, sounds kinda judgemental, the exact thing Jo is writing about with some incredulity. Maybe the answer is that we should treat the argument with respect whether it deals with books, television, videogames...all can be imaginative enterprises. As much as literary readers might enjoy looking down on genre readers, and science fiction reader might enjoy looking down on romance readers, and readers in general might look down on television watchers, that doesn't make any of them right.
20. Captain Starlight
Well, I read for pleasure, not pain, and I note that one Jorge Luis Borges made an interesting comment once on reality and myth, escapism and realism in the short short story/essay, Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote, found in The Maker:
Weary of his land of Spain, an old soldier of the king’s army sought solace in the vast geographies of Ariosto, in that valley of the moon in which one finds the time that is squandered by dreams, and in the golden idol of Muhammad stolen by Montalbán.In gentle self-mockery, this old soldier conceived a credulous man—his mind unsettled by the reading of all those wonders—who took it into his head to ride out in search of adventures and enchantments in prosaic places with names such as El Toboso and Montici.

For both the dreamer and the dreamed, that entire adventure had been the clash of two worlds; the unreal world of romances and the common everyday world of the seventeenth century.
They never suspected that the years would at last smooth away the discord, never suspected that in the eyes of the future, La Mancha and Montici and the lean figure of the Knight of Mournful Countenance would be no less poetic than the adventures of Sindbad or the vast geographies of Ariosto.
For in the beginning of literature there is myth, as there is also in the end of it.
I rest my case. How many people find the real world of the Regency or the Romans or the like more of an escape than the escapist fiction of the SF writers dealing with overpopulation, climate change, religious fanaticism, political fanaticism, and the like?

(What? You've never read Jorge Luis Borges???)
Colin Bell
21. SchuylerH
@20: A great Borges quote, I agree. I can't help thinking that the escapism/jailers quote is getting rather tired, especially after Moorcock (or was it Leiber?) remarked that jailers don't object to escapism, it's actual escape they want to prevent.
22. AlecAustin
@ SchuylerH: Many jailers do object to escapism, though. (See the deployment of censorship regimes in totalitarian societies, and the rhetoric claiming that imaginative literature is immoral.)

If one can't imagine escape vividly, actual escape is impossible.
23. CarlosSkullsplitter
I'm not talking about "escapism". I'm talking about self-medication. If one is living in a totalitarian state -- the real world, how horrible! -- it might be productive to think about escape. It probably isn't productive to take your daily dose of state-approved soma, now in convenient Patrick O'Brian flavor.

When I read arguments like these, I don't hear a paean to the pleasures of the imagination. I hear an ad for Victory Gin. If imagination causes one to withdraw and to exclude, it's a sorry thing indeed.
24. seth e.
My grandfather, who was Dutch, spent the last couple years of WW2 in a prison camp. He and some friends planned an escape, and he actually managed to pull it off in the confusion of the Red Army "liberating" the camp. He ended up walking home across Europe. It's a great story.

So, it's easy to imagine him planning his escape, and one of his buddies scoffing at his "escapism" and resigning themselves to the reality of imprisonment. That would be bad. But if my grandfather's buddies planned their escape, and he couldn't be bothered because he was lying on his cot daydreaming about escape and how he'd commandeer a tank and have a fistfight with the guards and it would be awesome, that too would be bad. Escape is a real, valuable thing, but avoidance is also real.
Colin Bell
25. SchuylerH
@22: The Soviets tried to suppress SF as anti-collectivist, didn't they? I have several problems with "escapism": first, there's M. John Harrison's observation that SF fans try to defend shabby writing by claiming that it's just entertainment (and who are you to try to take away our escape?) except, of course, I've seen this argument used so many times that it has lost all meaning. Then there's unquestioned assumptions that go unquestioned precisely because the work in question is escapist and thus somehow immune to normal standards: heroic empire-builders in steampunk, reimagined Khans in swords and sorcery and the frequent unquestioning acceptance of military values in adventure SF. Finally, there's the fact that most escapism is probably better termed distractionism, in that it doesn't help you envision a better world but rather lets you push reality aside briefly in favor of "Sky Captain Richard Mannering vs. the Blood Pirates of the Cape." By contrast, the Culture of Iain Banks is never going to happen but it is entertaining as a thought experiment, smart enough to acknowledge the chaos of the real world and you are left feeling uplifted and hopeful that yes, it might be possible to make the world a better place. One with freedom and equality and hyperdrives and AIs. I don't object to the idea of escapism, I just wish that more of it understood what it is escaping from.
26. Amaryllis
@23: There's nothing inherently wrong with "self-medicating," either. If I have a headache, I take an aspirin without needing a doctor's persmission. If I have a bad day, I don't need a psychologist's permission to re-read a favorite book. Or a literary critic's prescription for the appropriate book in the appropriate dosage, either.

(And Patrick O'Brien makes everything better.)

But that's not the only kind of reading, or even of entertainment reading, and I'm hearing plenty of "paeans to the imagination" in what people are saying.

@25: For all I know to the contrary, if I haven't read it or read a consensus of reviews of it, "Sky Captain Richard Mannering vs. the Blood Pirates of the Cape" might be a very good book, full of fascinating characters and exciting incident and graceful writing and uplifting themes. The whole point of the OP and the discussion is that good writing isn't limited by genre, an idea that's apparently still controversial in some circles.

I haven't heard anyone here say that genre writing shouldn't be subjected to any kind of literary or thematic analysis. In fact, it's probably the opposite: if genre writing is worthy of being read without shame, it's also worthy of being thought about rather than dismissed as "just entertainment," although there's nothing wrong with being entertained.
Colin Bell
27. SchuylerH
@26: Yes, good writing isn't constrained by genre. I was trying to make a point about the other side of the coin, namely that bad writing isn't constrained by genre. What annoys me is the continued defense of bad writing as entertainment (I could apply this to several major series in SF and fantasy, including a few published by our hosts). These series clearly have their fans and they must find something to connect with but on the objective, critical level, there's nothing much there.

It's probably more productive to discuss what makes good entertainment and escapism. My current book is a good example of the sort of SF I read for entertainment: A. Bertram Chandler's Galactic Courier, an omnibus of four novels in his "John Grimes" series. Why do I like it? Well, for a start, the setting feels original (it probably isn't but that's strangely unimportant). The space opera venue of the Rim Worlds is well-constructed and always characterful. He even manages to get in a couple of references to events in contemporary Australia (most famously in "The Mountain Movers"), so I'll give him a social relevance point.

Then there's Grimes himself. He's clearly inspired by Forester and O'Brian's naval heroes but, unlike certain characters you could name, is quite happy to go off and develop a life of his own. The characters are generally well-rounded and, unusually for the time, Chandler seems quite comfortable writing female characters though not, alas, female viewpoints.

The writing is generally competent to good and Chandler is capable of his moments of pathos (To Prime the Pump) and bathos (Star Courier). Outside of Grimes, his story "The Cage" (which I think is in the Aldiss anthology for Penguin Modern Classics) uses the conventions of the SF puzzle story to reflect on a rather grim view of intelligent life. It's like "The Cold Equations," only good.

Finally, there's the actual storytelling, an art that tends to get overlooked. I like that each story is a self-contained adventure and that they all feel different. However, they all slot together fairly neatly to make the story of the Commodore's career, even more impressive when you consider that Chandler wrote the sequence out of order and, due to its effective serialisation in Ace and DAW paperbacks, hardly anyone read it in order anyway.
Still, I don't like all of them. Chandler was a creature of his time and held certain views that would be considered outdated today. They don't crop up often (it isn't really the focus much of the time) but occasionally you get one like False Fatherland which is basically irredemable.

On the whole, those are the kind of qualities I like to find in SF entertainment. Chandler isn't perfect but I prefer him to much that I am offered today.
29. matthh
You know, writing about something which is supposedly "important" doesn't make it good writing, or though it's important, it's another issue whether the way you're writing about it is all that important in regard to other approaches or different things of writing...
30. KellieKellie
Robert E Lee said reading fiction weakened the mind. I think it all comes down to this: do you think fiction weakens the mind, or do you think it's a perfectly fine way to use your mind? If fiction is okay, then sf is okay (since it's the bigger universe in which realistic fiction exists).
31. Mea
Great post and comments. I don't usually comment, but I always read everything you post, and love the interesting and thoughtful discussions that follow.
32. Clem
I have few acquaintances with an interest in SF/F, so I'm used my reading and writing choices being judged and misunderstood. As such, I'm also used to not caring about what others think of my escapism. Daily life is an excercise in constant stress, so if I want escape via a Silmarillion chapter now and then, or one of my other favorites, then I shall have it. And my friends can continue soaking their brains in reality TV.
33. Tuula
I find the escapism-accusation is one that is always directed at the genre the speaker does not like. Romantic novels - escapism, while these war adventure books are not. Historical fiction - escapism, while these romantic novels tell of people who live here and now, and so on and so forth. Unless you are reading textbooks about plumbing, and then only because you would like to learn plumbing, almost everything can be seen as escapism.
34. Ian Barrs
Well, I don't like to blow my own trumpet, but in this case I'm basically just pointing out something absolutely wonderful that C.S.Lewis wrote on this subject...

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